Ronald Wallace’s first published books were works of scholarship, though he is perhaps now better known for his poetry. His first scholarly book, Henry James and the Comic Form, published by the University of Michigan Press in 1975, argues that James’s novels should be read in the context of an American comic tradition, and was hailed by Leon Edel (James’s most distinguished biographer) as “a turning point in James criticism.” His second scholarly book, The Last Laugh: Form and Affirmation in the Contemporary American Comic Novel, published by the University of Missouri Press in 1979, continued his exploration of humor in American literature, examining comedy in novels by John Barth, John Hawkes, Vladimir Nabokov, Ken Kesey, Robert Coover, and others, and was praised by Norris Yates as a “model of scholarly and critical style” that provides “reinterpretations–both brilliantly and solidly.” His third scholarly book, God Be With the Clown: Humor in American Poetry, explores the comic poems of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, John Berryman, and a number of more recent poets, establishing him as an authority in the field. American Literature commented that “he argues with persuasiveness and wit for a deeper appreciation of the comic perspective as a shaping force in determining the nature of America’s poetic achievement.”
The continuing importance of Wallace’s scholarly work on humor in American literature is evidenced by Harold Bloom’s inclusion of a chapter from Henry James and the Comic Form in Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: Henry James’s “The Ambassadors”, and by Gale Research’s excerpting of sections of several chapters of Wallace’s The Last Laugh in their annual volumes. The Wallace Stevens Journal reprinted, in a special issue, his chapter on Stevens from God Be With the Clown.
In 1989 Wallace published his anthology, Vital Signs: Contemporary American Poetry from the University Presses, a comprehensive text that, in the words of The Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, “reads like a Who’s Who of the contemporary scene.” Establishing Wallace as an authority on University Press poetry publishing, the anthology was praised widely for its “considerable bibliographical and historical value.” Jonathan Holden, in The Associated Writing Programs Chronicle, is typical of other reviewers in noting “its almost devastating thoroughness” and concluding, “it will, in my opinion, remain an indispensable source-book for the foreseeable future. Like The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, this book will be an essential addition to the library of any contemporary American poet.”
Wallace’s eight full-length poetry books and six chapbooks have shown the development of his work on a technical, intellectual, and emotional level. His first book, Plums, Stones, Kisses & Hooks, published in 1981 in the University of Missouri Press’s Breakthrough Books Series, reveals his mastery of the lyric mode in poems that befriend the reader with their accessibility, wit, observational powers, and charm, and introduce some of his major themes: mortality (with special reference to his father’s long illness and death), the natural world, the importance of family life and community, the vagaries of love and time. Although the poems are written in free verse, their control of language and rhythm and line prefigure his later explorations of contemporary uses of traditional forms.
About Plums, Stones, Kisses, & Hooks, The St. Louis Post Dispatch commented: “The writer consolidates his knowledge, steadily examining the small and large particulars, slowly accumulating wisdom and character. The results are real and lovely. . . . Wallace’s fine book preserves the texture, the beauty, and the definition of ordinary life.” Poet Richard Hugo predicts, “Given the honest artistry of his hard won poems, it would be impossible that his reputation won’t increase considerably in the years to come. His poems ring with validity.”
In Tunes for Bears to Dance To, Wallace extends his range, moving to a more conversational idiom and an occasionally more humorous tone. The poems become longer, more narrative, and rely as much on witty self-deprecation and self-exposure as on the song-like lyricism of his earlier work. While relinquishing none of its suppleness, his line becomes tougher and perhaps jauntier. Several poems in traditional forms indicate a direction his later work would take.
About Tunes for Bears to Dance To, Henry Taylor wrote in The Washington Times, “Wallace’s control of metrical technique makes this variety exhilarating. . . . When Wallace writes with this kind of assurance, as he does most of the time, there is not much to do but be grateful for the poems.” The Kansas City Star reviewer observed “these poems are tender, multidimensional and a pleasure to read.” Felix Pollak in Northwest Review writes “The volume is, for several reasons, an extraordinary achievement. For one thing, it combines–really synthesizes–great technical skill with strong and genuine emotion.” And Lisel Mueller writes, “Ron Wallace has an inventive and witty imagination which takes him into all sorts of surprising directions. His work is not only sure in its craftsmanship, but humanly important in its subject matter and treatment. Best of all, it is exuberantly alive.”
With his third collection, People and Dog in the Sun (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1987), Wallace takes Robert Pinsky’s advice in The Situation of Poetry to “transcend the image without abandoning it,” by experimenting with a more discursive mode. Refusing to be bound by the mainstream truism “show, don’t tell,” Wallace pushes the lyric and narrative toward a poetry of statement, exploring his insistent subjects (love, death, illness, parent-child relationships), from a new perspective. He also moves from the personal mode popularized by the confessional poets of the sixties and seventies to a more public voice, examining such subjects as nuclear war, environmentalism, militarism, crime.
Of People and Dog in the Sun, Stephen C. Behrendt in Prairie Schooner concluded “Wallace’s poems teem with the immense variety of life, keenly perceived and distilled through a sensitive consciousness in tranquility. Indeed, there is a certain Wordsworthian purity of observation and reflection here, a celebration of elemental nature and experience. . . . It is just such a shared sensory and intellectual immediacy, coupled with the clean lines of the verse, that makes these poems so moving.” And poet Mary Fell wrote “I am deeply affected by the voice, the body, the world in Ron Wallace’s People and Dog in the Sun: real poems.”
The Makings of Happiness (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991) and Time’s Fancy (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1994) are something of a culmination of everything Wallace had done to date. Incorporating the lyricism, humor, and discursiveness of the first three books with a new sureness and expansiveness of voice and spirit, Wallace celebrates the power of love and landscape and the family romance in the face of personal and public breakdowns in a world whose security becomes daily more tenuous. The Makings of Happiness covers a wide range of human experience: music, religion, sex, art, childhood, adolescence, nuclear war, illness, and death. But it is Wallace’s wit and good humor, against undercurrents of sorrow and loss, that best characterize this poetry.
Of The Makings of Happiness David Wagoner remarked, “Again we have what we have come to expect with pleasure from Ronald Wallace: wit, intelligence, originality, and a growing and deepening insight into the mysteries of daily life.” Mona Van Duyn wrote: “Well, I certainly found happiness in reading The Makings of Happiness! Being has no ‘unbearable lightness’ here. The poems are fat (a recurring word) with memory, love, humor (don’t miss the poem about poetry, ‘Building an Outhouse’) the world (the poet’s parents, wife, children, the goats, chickens, cats, frogs, fox). And there are many nourishing servings of sound and sense, all as in the huge ‘The Fat of the Land,’ a feast to set against ‘the non-caloric dark.’ And yes, there are, during this picnic of a book, times when lightning strikes and the hair rises.” And Fred Chappell in The Georgia Review concludes about Wallace’s characteristic mode, “the picture might have been painted by Bruegel, Rubens, and Botero working in collaboration. . . . [He] possesses a high excellence.”
With Time’s Fancy Wallace reveals a darker and deeper voice, one more meditative and complex, less sanguine, perhaps, about the tragedies of daily life. Without sacrificing the wit and humor, the synthesis of technical skill and strong emotion, the sensory immediacy, of his earlier work, he embraces the declarative voice he had introduced in The Makings of Happiness. The book includes a variety of traditional forms, including several highly difficult examples rarely seen in contemporary poetry–ballades, canzones, a pantoum.
Time’s Fancy was awarded the Wisconsin Library Association’s Banta Award in 1995. About this book, The Minneapolis Star Tribune noted: “With this fifth collection of Ronald Wallace’s poems, Ed Ochester has added yet more distinction to his Pitt Poetry Series.” Jacob Stockinger in The Capital Times commented, “Somewhere among those major cultural milestones, probably with poets like Richard Hugo and William Stafford, you’ll find Ronald Wallace, whose images, words and themes, ring with a distinctively American idiom.” Laurel Speer in Remark insists “When Wallace succeeds at this level, he justifies the whole art of poetry.” Michael Bugeja in Writers Digest states, “Ronald Wallace’s voice is as varied as any poet writing today.” And Publisher’s Weekly concludes, “Part of what sets Wallace apart from other poets who write about personal and family life is his virtuosity with complex forms. . . . Yet Wallace is no mere technician; he weds considerable formal command with grace, passion, intelligence and wit.”
Wallace’s sixth poetry book, The Uses of Adversity was published by the University of Pittsburgh Press in 1998. The result of a project Wallace undertook to write a sonnet a day for a year, the book collects 100 out of the over 400 he completed (see his article on this project elsewhere on this website). Written in such a concentrated period, the sonnets are closely linked, providing a uniquely coherent structure for the book. As with Wallace’s earlier books, the language is often richly textured and musical, often plain-spoken and conversational, but always witty and accessible. The subject matter ranges widely from Rootie Kazootie and Froggy the Gremlin and Howdy Doody and Elvis Presley, to Christopher Columbus, Khrushchev, Kennedy, and Kevorkian; from Donald Duck and Mandrake the Magician and Li’l Abner and the Creature from the Black Lagoon, to Shakespeare, H.P. Lovecraft, Transtromer, Rilke, Wittgenstein, and Nietzsche; from the traditional themes of lyrics–love (both sacred and profane), death, the changing of the seasons, marriage, birth, divorce, childhood, sex, religion, art, the natural world, illness–to the most unexpected and quirky contemporary narratives. The title sequence (after the line from As You Like It, “Sweet are the uses of adversity”), represents Wallace’s final exploration of his father’s illness and death, and is both elegiac and celebratory.
With Quick Bright Things Wallace turns to short fiction in a book of interrelated stories and short-short stories in which a dress factory worker reveals his disturbing secret, a laconic farmer targets his hapless quarry, a son suffers the guilt of his father’s illness and death, a reclusive vanity publisher gets caught in a clash of cultures, a Mayan sacred well exerts its strange influence, a mother and daughter debate their animal rights, a husband and wife turn kindness itself into a weapon. Although the individual stories stand by themselves, they can also be read as a sequence of episodes in the life of Peterson Kingsley and wife Christine and their two children, Jennifer and Phoebe. Moving from country to city, and from internal to external conflicts, the stories trace the difficult journeys (social, sexual, psychological, intellectual emotional), that any marriage must take in a struggle to endure. Ranging from the heartbreaking to the humorous, these stories always return to the question of whether tolerance, good temper, and sympathy can prevail in the face of destructive forces within and without, whether “things”, despite their confusion, can somehow remain both “quick” and “bright.”
Wallace’s seventh book of poetry, Long for This World: New & Selected Poems, was named by the St. Louis Post Dispatch as one of the “eight best poetry books of 2003,” won the Council for Wisconsin Writers Poetry Book Award, and was named a notable book by the Wisconsin Library Association
Wallace’s eighth and most recent book of poetry, For a Limited Time Only, won the Council for Wisconsin Writers Poetry Book Award and the Society of Midland Authors Award in 2009, and is available from the University of Pittsburgh Press.